DUNDALK, MD., SEPT. 22 -- From the Washington suburbs, inner-city Baltimore and the Eastern Shore, educators and politicians converged today to confront what they all agree is a problem: the uneven quality of public education in Maryland.
It is a touchy issue, and one that is provoking anger and lawsuits in other states.
Kentucky courts recently ruled the state's education system unconstitutional because of differences between rich schools and poor ones. New Jersey courts have ordered the state to come up with more money for poor, urban schools. And lawsuits are pending elsewhere.
Maryland also is vulnerable, according to authorities on school finance. Relatively affluent schools, such as those in Montgomery County, spend 50 percent more per child than ones in Baltimore and poor parts of Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.
Today's conference was an attempt to find a solution amicably. "We have a unique opportunity in Maryland that, without a threat of a lawsuit, we may be able to achieve something," said Tru Ginsburg, president of the Metropolitan Education Coalition, a statewide group that sponsored the meeting at Dundalk Community College.
But conference participants found that the solutions they proposed were as different as the school systems they represent:
A Baltimore lobbyist recommended that the state give an extra $150 million to Maryland's poorest jurisdictions.
William Ecker, school superintendent in Caroline County, recommended that the state take over the entire business of subsidizing schools. Currently, local taxpayers cover, on average, more than half the costs of elementary and secondary education.
Montgomery County school representatives said that any new form of subsidy must take into account the higher living costs in the Washington suburbs.
And Carl Schramm, president of a Baltimore homeowners coalition, said the state simply should give each parent a check to use at any public or private school.
"People hate most aspects of government," Schramm said, outlining what he calls his "radical response" that is being embraced by a handful of other states. "To protect our schools, we would be well-served to put a non-public face on them."
The one thing on which everyone seemed to agree is that the status quo is not fair.
"All I know is, as far as educational opportunities around the state, they are not equal," Ecker said. "If you have five kids in a family we wouldn't say, 'Because you have greater needs, we'll give you less.' But that's what we do in education."
Under Maryland's current form of education aid, basic subsidies take into account a county's wealth, but those subsidies represent only about half of a school system's state aid. As for the rest, including Social Security and retirement benefits, more affluent counties with higher salaries may get more help than their poor neighbors.
Frustration over the $1.6 billion in school aid has simmered for more than a decade in Maryland, prompting an unsuccessful lawsuit during the late 1970s and several changes in the formula for alotting money. A new round of momentum is building again, and many expect the financing of education to become a major issue in the 1991 General Assembly.
The broad-based coalition held a march in Annapolis last winter and is viewed as a major influence this year. "This is the constituency that's been missing," said Del. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's), who was at today's conference.
Others cautioned that greater and more equitable distribution of money will not solve all the problems of schools, especially in poor areas.
Some called for improvements in teacher training. "You don't put live eggs under a dead chicken, because they won't hatch," Ecker said.
Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's special secretary for children, youth and families, said schools need to work more with 4-year-olds. "I would trade the senior year of high school for that extra year of training of that child," she said.